The lesson today, faithful readers, is this: Never (Ever!) underestimate any given Church's history.
I thought I had a pretty good grip on what the hot button issues were in Churches of Christ today: women's roles & worship styles. That's it, right? Tread carefully around those fiery topics, as well as other long-standing CoC traditional issues (baptism, spiritual gifts, et. al.), and you'll be OK. Right?
Little did I know that this Sunday the hot button issue would be 1st Peter 5:5a, which reads:
Young men, in the same way be submissive to those who are older.
Pretty straight forward, right? Not much need for Gram-chord here, is there? It says what it means, and it means what it says.
Until one of the younger men in our church (a man under 30 who is looked up to as a leader ... let's call him "Rick") spoke up and said, "I believe that this is true ... UNLESS the 'Elder person' isn't living a Holy Spirit-inspired, cruciform, Godly lifestyle." This sparked the beginning of what I thought was a good discussion on leadership, discipleship, and character.
So when Rick finished his rather long-winded rant regarding elder persons who are unqualified to receive his "submission," and as the discussion was beginning to reach a lull, I decided to push back a little. I roughly said, "Boy ... that sounds like cut & run to me. I think Peter here is assuming that the older persons are faithful. And there are faithful older persons that we should look up to." And I really sort of thought that this statement might fulfill the void left by Rick & bring balance to the discussion. Was I wrong.
Rick once led a vibrant youth group at this small congregation. However, the group dried up as the kids graduated & moved on with no other kids coming up to replace them. Rick told the story of a time when he very visibly & openly tried to bridge a gap between the older & the younger in this church. And when his attempt to do this failed miserably on account of neglect by the older ones in the church, his attempt to bring two age groups completely backfired -- making the youth resentful of their elders, and for a seemingly good & somewhat justified reason.
And he aired this dirty laundry in Bible Class -- in front of God, the old people, and everybody!! I literally thought this was about to explode in my face. I recount at least two episodes in my ministry life where I've had a situation blow up in my face -- that is, in public. (Kellar, you were there for both. Heart-breaking, horrific, and utterly depressing are those memories ...). I thought I was getting ready to add a third.
Rick came dangerously close to tears as he recounted the story for all of us. It was an emotional story ... a story which explains a lot about why this church was in the sorry condition it was when I arrived on the scene. (Not that I've been Mr. Clean, and everything is spick & span now at the Lynn Haven Church of Christ. But the Church is at least moving in the right direction now.) But just when I thought this might turn into an impassioned, acrimonious storm of an argument, the climate completely changed. And the rest of 1st Peter 5:5 seemed to kick in:
All of you, clothe yourselves with humility toward one another, because,
"God opposes the proud
but gives grace to the humble."
Thankfully, I was granted the last word on this issue. As Rick remained bold in his stance about his unwillingness to follow un-Christ-like elders, I paused, and this is what I said:
"I hear what you're saying, Rick. I really do. ([Interrupting myself] ... and as I told him later one-on-one ... I mean, it is EXTREMELY telling about a void in elders as leaders, after all, that one of the most respected leaders in our church is under the age of 30.) And I think that for the part of the picture you are outlining, you are dead-on correct. Here in 1st Peter 5, Peter is putting the burden of leadership upon the elders. The onus is on them. And they need to live up to the calling God has placed upon them.
"It's similar to one of my own personal hot button issues: modesty in female dress. Oftentimes, all that is said about this is that women need to dress more modestly. And we place the burden of leadership in this issue on women. We put the onus on THEM! And then we turn around in our Bible classes and, with a straight face, talk about MALE SPIRITUAL LEADERSHIP in our assemblies. Are you kidding me?!
"HYPOCRITES, I say!
"As men, and as the male spiritual leaders, the onus ought to be on US! We need to learn the meaning of self-control when it comes to lust & sexual temptation. And you know what? When we do that, we won't have a problem with immodest dress anymore in our assemblies. Why? Because women follow our lead. Women dress immodestly because they know they can attract our attention. If we, corporately, as men & leaders, with great focus deliberately give our attention to modest women & withdraw our attention from immodest women, women will INHERENTLY WANT to dress to modest standards. The burden of leadership falls to the men here.
(To interrupt what I actually said this morning, I also feel the need to respond to what I already know what some of you are saying inside your heads. 'That's COMPLETELY unrealistic, Philip, to expect all men to control their eyes.' I COMPLETELY disagree. If you say that's unrealistic, then I say, 'Where's your faith?' If you say that's unrealistic, then what Gospel is it exactly that you believe in? If it's not a Gospel of transformation, than it is NOT 'Good News.' Boys do not always have to remain boys. They can grow up. And that's my 2 cents on THAT.)
"So, in that sense Rick, I agree with you. The onus is on the elders. And they need to step up."
"However, I am EXTREMELY hesitant to go where Scripture does not go & say that I will not submit ungodly elders in the church. We simply don't have a clear example to follow here; it seems to me all we have is our sanctified wisdom, judgment, and common sense.
"Peter has spoken in this letter about submission in many ways. He talks about citizens being submissive to our governments. He talks about slaves being submissive to their masters. He talks here about younger folks being submissive to elders. And he also talks about wives being submissive to husbands.
"That latter is sort of interesting. We know that, according to Ephesians 5, wives should submit to their husbands & husbands should love their wives as Christ loved the church. Should wives continue to be submissive to their husbands even in a physically, verbally, and/or sexually violent relationship? I, for one, don't think so. But how far does that line even go? When you can you call it and say, "That's abusive." I'm gonna argue that THAT line is WAY, WAY out there.
"Look at Abraham & Sarah. Abraham, knowing the beauty of his wife, cowardly folded like a tent at the face of adversity. Instead of standing up for the honor of his wife, he claimed her only as his sister so as to save his own neck. Now ... was Abraham loving his wife as Christ loved the church? NOT EVEN CLOSE! Not even in the same ballpark. He abdicated his responsibility as a husband here. But did Sarah? Do we have a record of her objection? No. She continued to submit to her husband EVEN in the face of the terrible trial of sleeping with a man who was not her husband & who she didn't even know! I'm telling you, folks: THAT is courage.
"You know what makes so many marriages go awry? The husband sees that his wife isn't respecting him & submitting as much as she should. So he gets up on that cross a little less. And so the wife begins to notice that he's not doing as much for her anymore, and so she begins to respect & submit to him even less. And you can see how this spirals further & further downward.
"What saves marriages are spouses who are willing to give at times even when nothing is given in return. And you know what? That spouse who has been derelict in his-or-her responsibilities will eventually notice. Good deeds inspire more good deeds. If as husbands & wives you continue to plant good seeds despite your partner's response, you'll eventually see a bumper crop.
"What is true of those relationships is true here, too. We can either spiral downward or spiral upward. It takes patience. It means sometimes putting up with a lot of grief. But either we're investing in mutual respect, or we aren't. And that is at the crux of what Peter is saying here in the latter part of verse 5 -- "clothe yourselves with humility toward each other." Too often, us younger folks are tempted to believe the lie that we can do without older folks & their "wisdom." And I imagine that some of the older ones here are tempted similarly to think that there is nothing to be learned from younger folks & very little that we can contribute aside from being energetic. But even in the face what appears to be ungodliness by our counterpart(s), just like our example Sarah, we must courageously continue to fulfill the commission God has passed down to us."
By reading the faces of the crowd & gauging feedback after class, I sense that these words were well-received. I'm not sure I dis-armed a time-bomb. I don't think a bomb was ready to go off there in the first place. But it sure felt like it at one point.
Nevertheles, just when you think you've got a handle on what "the issues" are, God can surprise you. Ministers: you CANNOT invest too much time in learning the history of your congregation, history of "the church" in your city, area, & state, and as well the personal history of as many of your members as possible. I know that after today I am even more tuned into & interested in learning as much history as I can absorb.